State health officials have begun a three-year experiment in combating the high number of Massachusetts children with asthma, starting at home. The effort underscores how widespread pediatric asthma is in Massachusetts.

(Embargoed until the week beginning Sept. 25.)

State health officials have begun a three-year experiment in combating the high number of Massachusetts children with asthma, starting at home.

In a pilot project, the Department of Public Health (DPH) is working with community health centers, school nurses and municipal building officials to identify families with children who suffer from asthma or are exposed to risks associated with the disease.

Health workers then approach families to ask if they are interested in a home visit to identify and try to address substances that can exacerbate asthma, from pet dander to mold and moisture problems.

The effort underscores how widespread pediatric asthma is in Massachusetts – it affects nearly 11 percent of children between ages 5 and 14 in the state, according to  Suzanne Condon, DPH’s director of environmental health.

“We believe this is a comprehensive approach to trying to deal with home-based health hazards,” she said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control are funding the $594,000 project, with support from the Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center, Condon said.

For now, the state is testing out the project only in Fitchburg and New Bedford, with some discussion about doing similar work with the medical communities in Boston and Springfield, Condon said. The Department of Public Health is working on ways to make the program sustainable and hopefully expand it in the future.

The project stems from an existing program to track and contact families of children who suffer from lead poisoning in order to prevent further cases and ensure they are treated properly. In its pilot cities, health workers in these cases now check for asthma, too.

The project is one of several the state is putting in place to try to address a growing asthma problem.

According to a 2009 state report, one in 10 Massachusetts residents has the lung disease, above the national average. Its prevalence among adults grew from an estimated 413,300 people to 496,700 from 2000 to 2007. Nationally, the ailment has been increasing since 1980, the report said.

The ailment is more common among adult women, boys, households with lower incomes and education levels, smokers and people with disabilities. The state also has seen higher pediatric asthma rates in places where children are exposed to mold and moisture, such as older housing stock, Condon said.

The exact causes of the disease are not fully understood. “Why you have asthma and the guy next to you doesn’t is not really known,” said Elaine Rosenburg, executive director of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s New England chapter.

But the costs are clear, with more than a fifth of Bay State adults with asthma missing at least a day of work in a year because of the disease, the state report said. The cost of hospitalizing people for asthma problems totaled $89 million in 2006.

The state has focused on both better tracking the disease among children and trying to reduce emissions that contribute to lung problems, including ground-level ozone, or smog, Condon said.

For example, the state Department of Environmental Protection recently wrapped up a diesel retrofit program for school buses, and since 1990, the state has required emission control devices on all vehicles registered in Massachusetts.

But some pollution is beyond the state’s control, with emissions that cause smog and other air quality problems coming from out of state, too. As a result, many environmental and health advocates in the Bay State were frustrated when President Obama recently scuttled plans to tighten ozone limits until 2013.

“We get pollution carried in from the west and from the south,” said Katie King, health promotion and public policy director at the American Lung Association in Massachusetts. “We have no ways to protect ourselves from that except for strong federal law.”

The Lung Association plans to participate in a Massachusetts Healthy Air Campaign kicking off this month to oppose what it views as attacks on the Clean Air Act.

In a statement, Obama said he is “unwavering” in his commitment to public health and the environment, but at the same time had to consider the impact of new regulations on the recovering economy.

Rosenburg’s group also favored a stronger ozone standard. “It probably in the long run costs more money to have dirtier air,” she said.

In the meantime, the state’s pilot project is one more effort to eliminate asthma triggers that are closer to home. Rosenburg said dealing with environmental triggers of the disease can be important in dealing with the disease.

“Because it’s so common, people think of it like a cold,” she said. “Everyone knows three people with asthma, but until you’re that parent whose kid can’t breathe, or you can’t breathe, you don’t know what it’s like.”

(David Riley can be reached at 508-626-3919 or